Security Bolstered in Philippine's Ferries to Prevent another Attack

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - Security on some of the Philippines' main inter-island ferries has become so tight that mobile phones must be dismantled for inspection to prevent a repeat of last year's terror bombing that killed more than 100 people, the doomed ship's owner said Monday.

A TNT bomb stashed in a TV set exploded aboard the Superferry 14 near Manila last Feb. 27, setting the ship ablaze in the country's worst terrorist strike. A group of Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremist guerrillas have been arrested and charged for the attack.

The ferry's owner, Aboitiz Transport System Corp., said the number of inspections has been increased and reinforced with more bomb-sniffing dogs and, soon, X-ray machines in passenger terminals and aboard its fleet of 16 ships. Heavily armed security marshals prowl ships while at sea.

"We are very, very committed to preserving the lives of our customers," said Ava Engel, an Aboitiz Transport executive. "The threat of terrorism is very real."

Company officials gave journalists a tour of one of their popular ferries to show its security features and amenities - part of efforts to lure still-jittery travelers. Aboard the Superferry 18, marshals wearing berets and brandishing M16 rifles inspected bunk beds and cabins in the 19,206-ton ship that can carry more than 2,200 passengers.

Despite the impact of the deadly bombing and a drastic increase in insurance costs, Engel bullishly predicted brisk business for the shipping line. Aboitiz is also involved in power generation, banking and food processing.

Company officials backed a finding by investigators that the bombing of Superferry 14 may have been motivated by extortion. They said without elaborating that a man claiming to belong to the Abu Sayyaf sent an extortion letter to the company before the attack.

Among those who have been charged with multiple counts of murder are Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani and alleged bomber Habil Dellosa. Janjalani remains at large, while Dellosa was arrested last March.

Security officials have said Dellosa confessed that he stashed about 3.6 kilograms (8 pounds) of TNT in a TV that he carried onto the ferry. Dellosa later claimed he was tortured into signing a confession.

Experts who examined the bombed ferry said the incendiary bomb - placed in a budget section to ensure maximum deaths - instantly triggered a fire that likely trapped people who survived the blast.